SEAT Leon Cupra R

The new Leon Cupra R is SEAT's most powerful car yet, but does it have the performance to justify its hefty price?

Scorching hot hatches have become something of a SEAT speciality. With its quick FR and faster Cupra models, the Spanish firm has won a legion of fans looking for driving thrills, arresting styling and great value.

Now the brand is aiming to take on the heavyweights with its fastest-ever model: the Leon Cupra R. Based on the standard Cupra, the new addition gets a storming 261bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, an uprated chassis and 155mph top speed.

It certainly has the right ingredients to take on the class leaders, and there’s no denying that the Leon looks the part. The normal Cupra isn’t short of visual aggression, but the firm’s designers have given the R even greater impact. There’s a large tailgate spoiler, 19-inch alloys and a touring car-style splitter below the rear bumper that houses the twin tailpipes.

Climb aboard, and you’ll discover there’s been less effort to distinguish the R from the standard Cupra. Eagle-eyed buyers will notice a discreet R logo on the speedometer, while the diamond-stitched leather seat trim is standard.

There’s also a rather cheap looking shiny black plastic finish for the backs of the chunky sports seats. On the plus side, the Cupra’s thick-rimmed three-spoke wheel is great to hold, while the low-slung driving position is very comfortable.

As with all Leons, the dashboard is attractively styled and well laid out. But while the cabin is solidly screwed together, some of the plastics look and feel low-rent. At least there’s plenty of kit, with climate control, an iPod connection and parking sensors all included. The latter are vital, as the Leon’s high window line and small rear screen can make parking a little tricky.

Family motorists will find there’s no shortage of space inside, while the five-door layout delivers added versatility. There’s room for three adults on the rear bench – although the large front seats will obscure their view forwards – and the cabin is littered with useful cubbies and compartments. Open the tailgate, and there’s a 341-litre carrying capacity, which is 41 litres bigger than the Mazda’s boot.

All thoughts of practicality will vanish the instant you fire up the 2.0-litre engine. The 261bhp unit delivers incredible power, which ensured a strong display at the test track. While the Leon trailed the Renault by two-tenths in the sprint from 0-60mph, with a time of 7.0 seconds, it stamped its authority on our in-gear tests. It needed only 7.2 seconds to go from 50-70mph – nearly a second faster than the Mazda.

In the real world, few cars can match the Cupra R’s overtaking pace, and this impression is heightened by the rasping engine note and slick action of the six-speed gearbox.

As you’d expect with such a high-performance machine, the SEAT’s brakes are eye-poppingly effective. Hit the middle pedal at 60mph, and the Cupra R will come to a stop in 34.7 metres – eclipsing the lighter Renault by 0.7 metres.

There are few complaints about the Cupra’s ability over twisting back roads, either. Lowered and stiffened suspension virtually eliminates body roll and delivers bags of grip, while the steering is well weighted and precise.

Better still, the XDS electronic differential tames torque steer effectively, so you don’t get the same distracting kickback through the wheel that the Mazda suffers from. And while the Leon trails the Renault for razor-sharp responses, it’s still incredibly agile and great fun.

There is one stumbling block for the SEAT, though: its price. At £25,205, it’s the most expensive car of our trio. And it gets worse, because the regular Leon Cupra is very nearly as fast, drives as well and costs £3,705 less!

So, does the newcomer do enough to justify its price premium and snatch victory?

Details

Chart position: 2WHY: Why? With a 261bhp engine, beefed-up looks and an uprated chassis, the Cupra R aims to topple the hot hatchback elite.

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